Rodolphe Count de HEMRICOURT de GRUNNE


Fourth child of Belgian Count Charles de GRUNNE and French Countess Marie de MONTALEMBERT, Rodophe was born on 18 November 1911 in Etterbeek  (a suburb of Belgian capital, Brussels). When the 1st world war breaks out the de GRUNNE family flees the country to England and, later on, to Paris where Rodolphe will enter into school.

After 1918, the de GRUNNE family settles at Aalter (near Gent). At 18, Rodolphe is sent to Casablanca (French Morocco) to learn agriculture. When he returns to Belgium, he is called in to military service and being a daredevil, wants to become a pilot in the Belgian Aéronautique Militaire. Suffering an eye deficiency, Rodolphe is refused and is forced to enlist in the Régiment des Guides (horse regiment) in 1933/1934. In 1935, angry to have learned that Anne (one of his sisters) became a civilian pilot, he himself obtained his civil flying licence. It will nevertheless be his last effort, as indeed the young nobleman soon becomes a victim of his spleen and the easy life of the Belgian capital.

The beginning of the Spanish Civil War will "wake" him up!

In Spain

By the end of September 1936, Rodolphe leaves Brussels by train. As an ardent catholic, he volunteers to join the Nationalist forces fighting "against the Reds". On 7th October, the young Belgian is at Burgos "capital of the insurgents". A few days later, de GRUNNE joins the Centuria Argentina (an infantry unit mainly constituted with Argentinean volunteers). Wounded in action on 23rd November, it seems that he met a Spanish flyer in his hospital (at Burgos?) and, the Spaniard learning that the Belgian was a civilian pilot of noble origin, certainly gave him information and some support to join the Nationalist Air Force.

Hastily trained in Tablada (Sevilla) flying school from December 1936 to February 1937, Rodolphe de HEMRICOURT is sent to Zaragossa to operate with 3-E-11Squadron, a recce unit equipped with the obsolete German Heinkel 46 (given by the Legion Condor). After sixteen war flights, the young Belgian is transferred to 1-E-2 Squadron, which could be compared to a fighter unit, being equipped with Heinkel 51's. These ex-German fighters were bought by (or given to) the Nationalists to improve their Air Force facing the new fighters (as the Polikarpov I-15) sent by USSR to Republicans (and paid by Spanish gold!).

With his new plane, de GRUNNE is quickly engaged in combat over the Aragon frontline. On 7th April 1937, 1-E-2 fights at Carrascal and on 12th April its He 51 operate over Santa Quiteria. They use the "Cadena" tactic, i.e. an in line strafing attack on Republican positions. Rodolphe (nicknamed by his Spanish comrades: "Rodolfo" or "Harrico"-for HEMRICOURT!) will suffer ground fire but is too engaged in aerial combat with Polikarpovs. Some of his comrades are shot down; some of them claim victories. But de GRUNNE has not yet that luck. He nevertheless can come through all those dogfights and nearly became a
"survivor", many pilots of his Squadron having been WIA or KIA, if not POW. In June, the young Belgian is engaged with his unit in the Huesca fights. It will be the last missions of Rodolfo on the "old" He 51 as on 1st November 1937 the Belgian volunteer is transferred to yet another Squadron based at Zaragossa: the 4-G-12 having inherited of Roméo 37's bought from the Italian ally. But Harrico will not remain with that unit for a long time as he is called back to Tablada to help to raise a new fighter unit.

Fighter pilot

Having received new Fiat CR.32 "Chirri", the Nationalist Air Force decides to create a new fighter Squadron, the 3-G-3. Experienced pilots (as de HEMRICOURT) were needed and, after another hastily training, the ex-recce and ground support pilots called to Sevilla are "transformed" to fighters.

Rodolphe de HEMRICOURT de GRUNNE in front of his Fiat CR.32

To the surprise of the Nationalist High Command enemy forces attacked at Teruel and the Belgian with some comrades is hastily transferred to 2-G-3, led by the famous ace Joaquin GARCIA MORATO.

For his first operations with the Fiat, Rodolphe de HEMRICOURT will have to fight at high altitude in an open cockpit. Temperature falls to -50° (centigrade) and the aerial engagements are fierce. During such an operation, de GRUNNE's CR.32 is hit by an A.A. round. Rodolfo succeeds in making an emergency landing, saving his life and that of his machine.

After the recapture of Teruel by the Nationalists, 2-G-3 moves to Tauste to operate over Aragon. On 9th March 1938, the offensive begins and, in a few weeks, Republican territory will be cut in two after the victorious advance of the Nationalist forces reaching the sea (at Vinaroz, 15th April). From its new airfield of Belchite, 2-G-3 supports the ground forces by strafing and destroying enemy supply columns. de GRUNNE claims his first (unofficial) victory on 12th March when shooting down a Polikarpov near Hijar.

At that period, Josef STALIN decides to recall all the experienced Soviet pilots operating alongside the Republicans flyers severely declining the quality of their Air Force.

Later engaged in the offensive against Valencia, Teniente de HEMRICOURT claims his second victory on 31st May and two more followed on 19th June (a Rata and a Chato, the nationalist nicknames for the Polikarpov I-15 and I-16). The Belgian is not only engaged in aerial combat: he also strafes ground forces or troops in trenches, he escorts Ju 52 bombers, ...

While 2-G-3 is on leave at Merida on 24 July the Spanish Republic launches its last major offensive on the Ebro River. On 14th August, a 5th claim follows of the Belgian (another Polikarpov). It is, in fact, his first "official" victory, the first four ones having not been attributed! On 1st September, Teniente de GRUNNE shoots down a Grumann Delfin (claim today contested by some historians of the Republican Air Force for various reasons...).

Rodolphe's unit is fiercely engaged against the Republican forces in the Ebro area, the situation in Estramadura having been secured. 2-G-3 is very active and our Belgian is credited (that time officially) with some new claims:

-22nd September: one I-15 and one I-16;

-2nd October: one I-16;

-3rd October: one I-16;

-2nd November: one "Chato";

-3rd November: another "Chato";

-12nd November: one I-16.

On 16th November, the Republican troops retreat on the other bend of the Ebro River. The days of the Spanish Republic are counted...

After the Ebro fights, Rodolfo and his comrades can have some rest. The Belgian recognizes in a letter that he is seriously tired of that war. Nevertheless, Caudillo Francisco FRANCO must crush the last resistance pockets and, on 23rd December, the Catalogna offensive begins. The Nationalist Air Force is superior in number and quality to its Republican counter-part (in all the Peninsula and especially, in Northern Spain). On 3rd January 1939, Teniente de GRUNNE claims his last I-15, his tenth official claim (not including the four other ones unrecognised). Barcelona falls and the Spanish Republic lives its
last months. For de GRUNNE's unit, the end of the Civil War will be only a "walk" to the South. On 31st March 1939, Madrid capitulates. The Nationalists have won!

On 15th May 1939, in the great victory parade held at Madrid before the Caudillo, Rodolphe de GRUNNE (the greatest foreign ace of the Nationalist Air Force) is one of the pilots whose plane forms the name "FRANCO" in the skies of the Spanish capital.

Return to Belgium

In the beginning of June 1939, Rodolphe de HEMRICOURT de GRUNNE returns to his homeland, which he left nearly three years before. Speaking fluent Spanish, he was well integrated in the Nationalist Air Force and had no opportunity to come back and visit his family. His father died in April 1937 but the young volunteer was informed too late...

What to do in a peaceful country? de GRUNNE hopes to become a test pilot and believes that later on he could later find a job in Spain after the reconstruction of that desolated land. But 2nd world war is approaching and in September 1939, after the German invasion of Poland, Rodolphe is called into the Belgian Army ... in a bicycle company, part of an Infantry Division! He naturally protests vigorously and is then transferred to Deurne (Antwerpen), one of the Aéronautique Militaire's flying schools. Indeed, the ex-ace of the Spanish Civil War has still and only.... a civilian pilot licence!

Trained in a few days, Rodolphe enters in Squadron 2/I/2 "Les Chardons", the most modern one of all the Belgian Military Aviation, equipped with British Hurricanes. Being promoted officer in February 1940, Lieutenant de GRUNNE takes part to the patrols in the neutral Belgian sky. On 12 March 1940, he can intercept and attack a recce Do 17 but his machine guns jams and the German twin-engined bomber escapes unhurt.

On 12 May 1940, Rodolphe, wounded in a car crash in April, is not at the unit when the Wehrmacht enters in Belgium. He rejoins 2/I/2 the following day at Le Culot airfield to learn that nearly all the Hurricanes were destroyed on the ground by bombing on 10th. That day he nevertheless is designated for a patrol (as the most experienced fighter pilot of the Squadron) but a few minutes before boarding the planes, all remaining aircraft are strafed and destroyed by Bf 109's!

The men of 2/I/2 evacuate then to Southern France to wait for new planes. They will never arrive and pilots and ground personal will have a relatively pleasant life under the sun until the French capitulation of June.

Rodolphe does not want to come back to an occupied Belgium. With some comrades, he decides to desert from the Aéronautique Militaire to go to Great Britain.

On 19th June (day of the end of the war in France), two military cars loaded with seven Belgian pilots (including de GRUNNE) leave Fréjorques to Port-Vendres. In that harbour, the Belgians can board on SS Apapa. After many adventures, they land at Liverpool on 7th July 1940.

In the RAF

The RAF urgently needing men to counter the Luftwaffe and a possible invasion, Rodolphe and his fellow countrymen (being mainly experienced pilots) are retrained at Hawarden (7 OTU). On 4th August 1940, P/O de GRUNNE is sent to 32 Squadron. The unit, based at Biggin Hill, is equipped with Hurricanes, the same type of plane (but more modern) flown by de HEMRICOURT in Aéronautique Militaire. Rodolphe is quickly sent into battle and will claim a handful of German planes. But, again, those victories are contested (and we know today that a great part of British claims in the "Battle of Britain" period are dubious - mainly made for propaganda purposes). Officially, our Belgian is credited of one Bf 109, another damaged and a Do 17 shot down in co-operation.

But, on 18th August 1940, in a dog fight with a Messerschmitt Bf 109 of III./JG 26, he is himself is shot down over Ruckinge and suffers severe burns.

de Grunne in England in 1941

The last months

Rodolphe will remain in hospital for weeks, his face having to be "recreated". At the end of 1940, he is sent to Portugal, apparently to recover from his wounds. In fact, Belgian Government in exile in London tries to push him to some secret actions in Spain. But Rodolphe feels himself a flyer and not a spy; he hates treachery and will refuse to play the role of a secret agent acting against the Spaniards, not willing to lie to his ex-brothers-in-arms.

Coming back in Great Britain, Rodolphe joins the famed 609 Squadron on 29th April 1941 meeting there some Belgian pilots (including a few comrades which arrived in England with him on SS Apapa). His career will nevertheless be short in that unit...

After some war flights, de HEMRICOURT is engaged on 21st May 1941 in Circus N°10 over Northern France. At the vertical of the Channel, Rodolphe is surprised by a Bf 109 (apparently manned by Oblt Willy STANGE, Kapitän of 8./JG 3) and shot down. His Spitfire II "Yellow 2" (P7436) is seen diving into the sea, the pilot remaining in the plane. The waves will never give back P/O de GRUNNE's body...


Jean Louis Roba

(To the beloved memory of Countess Anne de BOUSIES, née de HEMRICOURT de GRUNNE, the adventurous sister of Rodolphe deceased in 1996, who gave me many pleasant and interesting details about her brother's life).  

Last updated 06/11/11 16:00 by  Daniel Brackx